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As the start to the 2021 season approaches, third-year Matawan head coach Jay Graber and he’s team are hoping for a better start to the year than the one they endured in 2020. While the competition at the outset will be challenging, it would take a lot of misfortune to author a start worse than the one that kicked off 2020.

The Huskies were shut down due to a case of COVID-19 just days before the season was to begin and returned with only two days to prepare for their opener vs. St. John Vianney, which was played two weeks after most of the state had already opened the season. To make matters worse, Matawan’s schedule was front-loaded, with two ranked opponents in Raritan and Holmdel following the 35-0 loss to St. John Vianney. Matawan was outscored by a total of 101-14 in the three losses.

“With COVID and the way things can just stop, I really try to keep my feet on the ground and focus on the here and now,” Graber said. “I want my team to be present and in the moment and when after so much of our season last year got cut out, I think they see the importance of not taking any day for granted. That’s why I don’t think about the future and rebuilding; every season is a new season and you play that one as best you can.”

The Huskies, however, rebounded by winning two of their last three and although they graduated some production, they return a solid core of players led by senior quarterback Dennis Buonagura and two-way standout David Onuoha – the latter of whom finished tied for fourth in the Shore Conference in tackles. Buonagura completed better than 63 percent of his passes last year for 460 yards and will be working with a young receiving corps led by returning junior Joe Bodin.

“Dennis is playing very well,” Graber said. “He has developed his leadership skills to a high level. He is throwing the ball well and accurately and proving that he has ability to be dynamic. We’re expecting good things from him this year.”

Top row from left: Nik Winzer, Zion Spence, Kyle Halliburton, David Onuoha; Bottom row from left: Joey Bodin, Dennis Buonagura. (Photo by Richard O'Donnell)

Matawan at a Glance

Projected Starters (RS=Returning Starter; 3RS=Third-Year Starter)

Offense: Multiple

QB: Dennis Buonagura, Sr., 3RS

RB: David Onuoha, Sr., 3RS; Jayden Percodani, So.; Colin Palumbo, Fr.

WR: Joe Bodin, Jr.

WR: Jayden Percodani, So.; Dante Stevenson, So.

WR: Frank Pinco, So.; Brian Charles Gagneron, So.

TE: Kyle Halliburton, Sr., RS

LT: Nick Winzer, Jr., RS

LG: A.J. Reamer, Jr.; Ryder Silvers, Jr.

C: Tim Murphy, Sr.

RG: Jordan Reamer, So.; Zion Spence, Jr.

RT: Zion Spence, Jr., 3RS; Jayden Elijah, Fr.

 

Defense: 4-3

DE: Nick Winzer, Jr.; Zion Spence, Jr., 3 RS

DT: Jordan Reamer, So.; Colin Juarez, Sr.

DT: Tim Ryf, Sr.; Ryder Silvers, Jr.

DE: Chris Burseth, So.; Zion Spence, Jr.

OLB: Lance Santos, Jr.; Kyle Halliburton, Sr.

MLB: David Onuoha, Sr., 3RS

OLB: Joe Bodin, Jr., RS

DB: Jayden Percodani, So.; Elishua Dawkins, Sr.

DB: Frank Pinco, So.; Colin Palumbo, Fr.;

DB: Brian Charles Gagneron, So.; Vito Scarpa, So.;

DB: Dante Stevenson, So.; Dennis Buonagura, Sr.

 

Special Teams

K: Dennis Buonagura, Sr., 3RS

P: Dennis Buonagura, Sr.

 

Staff

Head Coach: Jay Graber, third season

Career Record: 68-42

Record Last Five Years:

2020: 2-4

2019: 5-4

2018: 1-8

2017: 2-8

2016: 2-8

Assistant Coaches: Mohammed El Sherbini (Def. Coordinator/LB), Scott Messler (OL/DL), Bob Wietecha (WR/DB), Robert Cordasco (TE/FB/Freshman), Jeff Grimm (OL/DL), R.J. Davis (DB/QB), Joe Martucci (RB/LB), Nick Hartigan (RB/Freshman), Robert Bialowarczuk (LB/OL), Matt Goetz (Athletic Trainer)

Player to Watch: David Onuoha, Sr., RB/MLB

Onuoha is a physical force on both sides of the ball and in his senior year, he is likely to get a bulk of the carries out of the backfield. He was more of a secondary option as a runner last year while playing a standout middle linebacker (89 tackles), but the 6-foot-2, 235-pound senior is ready to take on the two-way assignment this season.

“David has put a lot of time into his body and his conditioning so that he is ready to play both ways at a high level,” Graber said. “He has high expectations for himself as much as we have high expectations for him. We are going to lean on him to make big plays running the ball, as well as to continue to do what he has done on the defensive side. We’re going to run it with him as much as we see fit and as much as he sees fit.”

Players Under the Radar: Nick Winzer and Zion Spence (Jr., OT/DE)

With two experienced two-way linemen, Matawan will be a tough team to deal with in the trenches. Winzer is the bigger of the two at 6-5, 275 pounds and is locked in at left tackle, while the six-foot, 235 Spence is a versatile lineman who will play tackle and guard on offense and all over the defensive line.

“Zion is versatile,” Graber said. “He could play anywhere on the line and we are going to look to use his versatility. He is not as big as a lot of guys at the position, but he makes up for it with his other attributes: quick feet, good hands, he is strong and agile.

“Nick is a big guy and he is an incredibly hard-worker. He has only played two years of football and he has learned a lot in a short time. He’s a great teammate and anybody who plays with him or coaches him loves being around him.”

Impact Newcomers: Colin Palumbo (Fr., RB/DB) and Jayden Elijah (Fr., OT)

Graber will not hesitate to turn to his freshman class this season, with Palumbo and Elijah looking like two early standouts. Palumbo will be an option out of the backfield and is also part of a deep mix of young talent in the Matawan secondary. Elijah, meanwhile, is an impressive 6-6, 285-pound tackle who could bully his way onto the starting offensive line – especially considering Spence’s versatility.

“Elijah and Palumbo have a chance to come in and make an impact right away,” Graber said. “They are part of a core of freshman that are very good and are going to make an impact on the program and are already making an impact.”

Top Position Group: Linebackers

Onuonha leads a linebacking group that boasts experience and upside. Junior Joe Bodin – who is likely to be the top target for Buonagura in the passing game – returns as a starter at one of the outside linebacker spots, while on the other side, junior Lance Santos and senior Kyle Halliburton will see time. Halliburton will be a key weapon at tight end and also has defensive experience that could round out Matawan’s trio of linebackers.

Big Shoes to Fill: Jayden Percodani, So., RB/WR/DB

Among the key players to replace from last year’s Matawan team are Adam Coleman and Nazir Abdul-Gaffar. Both were starters in the secondary and Coleman was the team’s top rusher, which is a combination of skills that overlaps with what Percodani brings to the table. The sophomore is capable of working out of the backfield or receiver and Matawan will likely need him to be productive in at least one of those roles. Meanwhile, the secondary is almost entirely comprised of sophomores and Percodani is at the forefront of that group.

X-Factor: Youth in the Secondary

According to Graber, the competition in the secondary is heavy and of all the players in the mix, all can play both cornerback and safety. That eliminates any limits for the coaching staff in selecting the best four to start opening week vs. Ocean – whether it is a younger mix that includes Palumbo or whether it is a package that features seniors Buonagura and Elishua Dawkins.

 

Schedule

Thursday, Sept. 2 at Ocean, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 11 at Marlboro, noon

Friday, Sept. 17 vs. Colts Neck, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 24 at Neptune, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 1 at Freehold Twp., 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 8 vs. Central, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 15 at Red Bank, 7 p.m.